/ 12 July 2023

Landmark sentence for West Rand chameleon poacher

Africa alone sees about half a million snakebites that need treatment every year, according to the World Health Organisation. (AFP)

For years, Rapule Mokoena brazenly stood at a busy intersection in Tarlton, west of Johannesburg, illegally selling wildlife to passing motorists.

Known as “Doctor”, the 26-year-old was notorious for poaching and selling a variety of species, particularly chameleons, tortoises and snakes, at the intersection of the N14 and R24 in Tarlton. He also sold unweaned puppies and kittens.

But on Tuesday, after an 18-month battle by the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital and Friends of Rescued Animals (Fora), justice was finally served. Mokoena was slapped with a 45-month jail sentence for animal cruelty in the Krugersdorp magistrate’s court.

Last week, Mokoena pleaded guilty to 13 counts of contravening the Animals Protection Act and the Gauteng conservation ordinances 18 months after the initial docket was opened and despite “ongoing opposition” from local law enforcement, the two organisations said.

The sentence, of which only a portion was suspended and without option of a fine, is the the highest to be handed down for crimes of this nature. 

For Wendy Willson, the legal and operations lead at the veterinary hospital, “it’s a really fantastic sentence for little creatures in South Africa” and is precedent-setting. 

“There are very few sentences to build upon in this crime,” she said. “Just him being kept in custody and the fact that it’s got this far and that he has been sentenced in the magistrate’s court is phenomenal for a tiny chameleon.”

Guilty plea

With the mandated law enforcement entities unable or unwilling to assist, the veterinary hospital and Fora had joined forces to stop Mokoena.

“Members of the Tarlton community then rallied in renewed belief that action would finally be taken against the perpetrators of these crimes, an aspect that magistrate M Pienaar recognised and thanked all involved for taking on,” it said. 

Multiple animals were rescued and finally a docket showing the numerous instances of repeated animal cruelty by Mokoena was wrestled into court where senior public prosecutor Engela van der Merwe assisted in ensuring its progress.

The veterinary hospital thanked the Fora team, which “never once stopped responding to animals in crisis at the intersection, to prosecutor Konanani Muvhenzhe”, and the hospital’s supporters, “without which we would not have been able to treat the rescued animals, open this docket or have been able to bring this fight to court”.

‘Way of life’

Last week, Willson, who was previously the manager of the National Council of SPCA’s special investigations unit, and Karin Lourens, who is head veterinarian at the hospital, testified in aggravation of sentence. They highlighted the plight of these animals and the bad treatment they endure.

In his pre-sentencing judgment on Tuesday, Pienaar spoke about how, in the interest of society, he needed to ensure that the sentence was adequate because people looked to the court for protection and had brought these charges against Mokoena.

“The magistrate said that in the aggravation of sentence, it came through that the trade in these reptiles is detrimental to conservation because they’re slow to mature, slow to reproduce and slow to repopulate when a population is being destroyed, and they must be conserved,” Willson said. 

Mokoena had chosen to make poaching and selling wild animals and puppies his way of life and a fully suspended sentence was not appropriate, Pienaar said. He was also denied future ownership of any animals.

Shuffling off the planet

Willson said it is “chameleons and other reptiles and the little things that are actually shuffling off this planet far faster” than large charismatic species.

The veterinary hospital said South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent that has multiple laws to protect animals from exploitation and cruelty, but a law is only as strong as its enforcement. 

“Little to no risk of detection, prosecution or punishment for these crimes has resulted in rampant illegal behaviour and cruelty contraventions pertaining to indigenous reptiles being rife. By continuing to ignore crimes against these animals we reinforce a societal belief that these animals are either not in any danger or not worth protecting.”

Tarlton’s trafficked animals reach the veterinary hospital, often in a state of collapse, suffering from conditions such as dehydration, starvation, injury and disease.

Long-running problem

Willson told how, more than 18 months ago, Fora had informed her of their problems with the illegal animal sales at the intersection. She, too, was asked to buy a chameleon there in 2016.

“It was about empowering them [Fora] in terms of the different legislation surrounding animals and trying to motivate and enable the police force to assist them, which they did try and were not very successful. 

The Tarlton community became involved with recording and reporting crimes to the veterinary hospital and Fora, and then contacting the police. 

They created a portfolio of evidence. “We recorded every single time these people were caught,” Willson said. “We’ve had reports of everything from jackal pups to baby honey badgers being sold on that corner and just an absolute refusal from any enforcement entity to act.” 

Finally a docket was opened. “After the docket was registered, it was interacting with the Krugersdorp court and the senior prosecution there because the junior prosecution also kicked the case out [saying] ‘you know it’s just chameleons’.”

Organised crime

Willson said senior public prosecutor Van der Merwe was a great help in getting her prosecutors to understand the severity of the crime and the importance of prosecuting it.

At the start of this year, Mokoena was granted bail and disappeared until a Tarlton police officer nabbed him for selling a chameleon. For three months, his applications for bail were opposed by staff from Fora and the hospital.

“If you’re trying to survive, you sell a chameleon for R50 or for the price of a loaf of bread. These guys were selling chameleons for R250 and up, and a tortoise for much more. This is not subsistence, it’s organised crime and much more than someone just trying to make a buck,” Willson said. 

The Tarlton community has rallied together to create a legal trade at the intersection, such as farmers supplying people with vegetables to sell on condition they do not trade in animals.

‘Brilliant result’

The sentence imposed on Mokoena is a “brilliant result for animal welfare”, said Fora manager Linda Scrace. “Most of these guys get a rap over the knuckles or they get a six-month sentence and then it’s suspended or they pay the fine and they actually don’t do jail time … Hopefully we’ve set a precedent now also that these guys don’t get away with it.” 
Cora Bailey, of Community Led Animal Welfare in nearby Durban Deep, who has also had “dealings with Doctor in the past”, praised the tireless efforts of Willson and Scrace. “They have got justice for the forgotten animals that no one cares about. It’s fantastic and a first.”